People with brain or spinal cord injuries in Alberta are testing new technologies designed to improve their lives by restoring movement.
Scientists, biomedical engineers, physicians and nurses from Edmonton and Calgary who are working to make paralyzed muscles move will receive $5 million over the next five years from the Alberta Heritage Foundation and the province.
On Monday, Darryl Steeles, who has multiple sclerosis, used a device that works with a leg brace to help him to walk. Electrodes in the device kick his nervous system back into high gear after nine years of destruction from the disease.
“I don’t want to get a wheelchair,” Steeles said. “I want to walk as far as I can walk when I can walk.”
Researchers are working on improving the device, said Prof. Richard Stein, a neuroscientist at the University of Alberta.
“Come back in a couple of years, and we’ll be able to get the upper part of the leg working as well,” said Stein.
A second device affectionately called “smart underwear” is designed to help prevent pressure ulcers, also known as bedsores, in people with spinal cord injuries. The ulcers cost the health-care system $3.5 billion in Canada, including $475 million in Alberta.
“We sit in front of our computers the whole day and we do not develop a pressure ulcer,” explained Prof. Vivian Mushahwar, a specialist in cell biology. “And the reason for that is because we do dynamic relief of pressure by fidgeting.”
For Warren Fleury, who can’t fidget because of a spinal cord injury he suffered 20 years ago, the smart underwear makes the movements for him.
The computerized device detects when muscles need stimulating. A red light indicates pressure on his buttocks as Fleury sits in a wheelchair, but when the underwear is turned on, the pressure eases.
“I’ve been trying it, and it seems to be doing pretty good for me right now,” said Fleury. “I also have chronic pain with my injury and it also helps kinda [offer] relief for that too, I’m finding.”
Researchers hope to take the device to clinical partners next year. More tests are needed, but when the product is ready for consumers, it will sell for $500 to $1,000.
The team is also focused on a research project that aims to create a system that will stimulate small regions of the spinal cord and brain to restore walking, a sense of touch, and the sensations of pressure, movement, temperature and pain for people with injuries, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, or other degenerative diseases.